A watershed wish list

Activists, officials have ideas for stream health
Trash and debris cover the banks of a stretch of Upham Brook in Henrico County.

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final article in a series about watershed health. In the Aug. 15 Citizen, neighbors of Henrico streams and various experts on waterway issues contributed feedback regarding their concerns about watershed health. This article examines suggestions for change and improvements to watershed health.

Despite serious concerns about the state of the county’s waterways, most observers and experts concede that there are a few bright spots.

Ann Jurczyk, a spokesperson for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, points out that citizens are becoming more aware of the small ways they can change their behavior to help improve water quality. She lists among those behaviors installing rain barrels, picking up pet waste, composting more and fertilizing less, not washing grass clippings and leaves down storm drains, washing cars on grass rather than on pavement, and buying local produce from Bay-friendly farmers.

“Collectively,” Jurczyk says, “all of these efforts add up to cleaner water.”

Lynn Wilson, a member of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board, says she is hopeful that the county will see more citizen involvement under the leadership of county manager John Vithoulkas, and cites the new citizen academy as a promising example of the administration’s push for more engagement on the part of residents.

Wilson also is encouraged by the results of Henricopolis education efforts, noting that the staff educator reaches thousands of elementary school students each year with her wetlands presentation. In addition, Wilson says, the Henricopolis board has partnered with the Capital Region Land Conservancy to hold conservation easements in the county – a move she says will protect watersheds by helping landowners protect green space.

Tim Thompson, the unofficial Upham Brook streamkeeper, says he takes hope from occasional wildlife sightings – signs that at least a few of the wild creatures are thriving against all odds.

He cites blue heron and black snakes in Jordan’s Branch at West Broad Street, a Mallard duck in Lost Creek, a beaver in Upham Brook, crawfish in Jordan’s Branch in Bryan Park, yellow finches in Lost Creek, and a nesting pair of red-tail hawks in the pines at the Paragon Place office complex along Upham Brook as evidence. He has even come upon a hibiscus flower blooming alongside a stream.

Bill and Kathy Talley, long-time neighbors of Upham Brook, also point to wildlife sightings, noting that Kathy looked out a side window one morning and spotted a crane standing proudly and erectly – perhaps almost defiantly – on a pile of litter. “And a neighbor called to tell me,” Bill says, “about the birth of baby Mallards under a bush in her front yard with the mother Mallard hovering over them. “

Talley also praises county staff who, though limited in number, are “concerned and pro-active; they respond and offer assistance as they can.”

Wish lists
At the same time, those who are invested in the streams and their health agree that a concerted effort is needed to overcome the problems with lack of leadership, initiative, and ownership that have stymied progress for so long.

Thompson believes that the first step to get all parties engaged would be the formation of an informal UBW Alliance, which would conduct a series of ongoing, non-political workshops.

“Get everyone concerned to look at UBW through one lens,” says Thompson, “and find one rope for everyone to pull on – in the same, general direction.” Thompson notes that CBF, for example, has retired environmental engineers from Chesterfield County on staff who contend that there are cost-effective storm water management solutions available now. He also cites Portland and Seattle as two cities with innovative storm water solutions, adding that Baltimore just built a rain garden in the heart of its downtown waterfront – creating not just a solution but a symbol, he says, of the connection to waterways and Chesapeake Bay.

“Rather than a blanket approach to storm water, bring creative, cost-effective best practices to specific sites, and work with nature instead of against it,” Thompson says, citing examples that include stream buffers, rain gardens and storm water ponds, and pervious paving.

Jurczyk concurs, pointing out that communities in Lynchburg, Arlington, Richmond, and Ashland are employing more cost-effective, natural low-impact development techniques to reduce stormwater runoff, and using tools such as bio-retention swales, green roofs, rain barrels, redevelopment incentives, and incentives to homeowners and businesses.

In addition, Jurczyk believes that Henrico should implement a stormwater utility fee to help fund upgrades to existing drainage systems, and to provide incentives for landowners and businesses to reduce their stormwater runoff.

Wilson would also like to see Henrico County implement a stormwater utility like the one in use by the city, and collect user fees for stream and river improvement. “If we did this,” Wilson says, “it would drive all kinds of activity to reduce the amount of and effects of impervious surface, runoff and erosion.”

Wilson believes, as well, that the county should get behind “a sustained and well-coordinated effort on behalf of Henrico’s rivers and streams,” rather than relying on the “few episodic, grant-funded efforts [that] scatter the landscape today.”

James Beckley, who once worked for a wastewater authority, is another concerned citizen who cites the increased use of porous pavements and bio-retention storm drains among the items on his wish list. Such practices, he says, may cost more initially but pay off in the reduced need to resurface parking lots and build storm water retention ponds.

Beckley emphasizes that many storm water issues are due to development based on techniques from three decades ago. Educating local governments, businesses, and the public to adopt more sustainable storm water management and do away with the old ‘divert and culvert’ approach should be a priority, he says.

“We need sustainable development,” he says. “We need to move away from a reactionary response to a proactive approach, so we do not destroy a stream and then try to restore it at a huge cost to taxpayers.”

Recalling that he once had to replace a leaking sewer line at a cost of more than $1 million per mile, Beckley notes that sewer lines are just one aspect of infrastructure that localities should be constructing to last more than 20 or 30 years. “Building sewer lines in a way to make retrofits less expensive would result in lower operational costs and also protect the environment,” he says.

While Beckley is encouraged by signs of greater awareness among local authorities of the need and cost efficiencies of reducing storm water flow, many improvements remain to be made, he says.

Among his suggestions are updating building codes to permit the latest proven techniques to lower storm water runoff, and changing zoning regulations to require a minimum amount of streamside buffering to help reduce erosion.

Counties should provide greater incentives, he says, for businesses, residents, and farmers to minimize storm water runoff through features such as rain barrels; localities can also reduce taxes for business that build smaller parking lots or have green roofs to capture rainfall.

“All it takes is the political will of local governments,” Beckley says, “to move away from the old methods.”

Fantasy or possibility?
Among the measures that Talley would like to see the county and VDOT take is to place more screen barriers around the watershed to capture pollutants and litter, and to step up schedules of routine cleaning. He also believes the county should follow up closely with developers and construction companies, increase inspections of new development sites, and hold companies accountable for the environmental costs of construction.

“[The county needs] to insure,” Talley says, “that contractors are following established policies and procedures to prevent sediment and storm runoff soil from entering into the Branch and other creeks.”

While he calls it “a fantasy,” Talley also wishes that Virginia would establish a refund policy on plastic water bottles and drink bottles, which he believes would go a long way toward curtailing the amount of litter in streams. “Other states have done this,” he says. “Why can’t we?”

Like Thompson, Talley believes that citizen awareness is also needed, and suggests that the county conduct town halls and meetings with civic associations, particularly with groups of homeowners that live adjacent to Jordan’s Branch and Staples Mill Pond. Officials should also send letters to homeowners who live along streams and emphasize the need to prevent litter, chemicals and lawn products from contaminating the water.

Since Talley suspects much of the litter in Jordan’s Branch is from the I-64/Glenside/Broad St. area, he also believes the county and VDOT should consider more signage regarding littering, dumping and the associated fines.

“Our county needs to conduct major public relations efforts to emphasize the need for stewardship of our branches, creeks and ponds,” Talley says.

Thompson agrees that landowners, business owners and residents must become partners if the UBW is to be preserved. Already at work on sign projects and plans to beautify stream overpasses, he suggests adding a publicity campaign that heavily promotes stream awareness through TV and radio PSAs, similar to messages about the Chesapeake Bay that are broadcast in the Baltimore area.

“If we want to raise awareness about polluted storm water with business and citizens, raise awareness about our local streams,” Thompson says. “We are a river town! Let’s embrace and enthusiastically protect the UBW like its nearby big brother, the historic James River.”

Disappearing treasures
Thompson joins the others, however, in worrying that at this stage of the game any such concerted effort may already be too late.

“We are past the tipping point,” he says. “Alarm bells have been going off for awhile, but we have become tone deaf and resigned to salvaging what we can. Like the level of carbon in the atmosphere, we cannot un-pollute the waterways. . . [Yet] there is no singular leader or leadership to rally all the discordant groups working to save our waterways. Reactions [from government agencies and non-profits] are ho-hum or we’re working on it or we’re busy and under-budgeted.

“Honestly,” Thompson frets, “I think we will wake up one day and these urban wild areas will be dead zones and will not be easily healed. We might wake up one day and find all the wildlife gone.”

Wilson agrees. “My fear is that by the time we as a community realize what we’ve got, it will be too late,” she says.

Talley reiterates that not only should residents and business owners take more responsibility, but also that county officials should take the lead and make the health of the watershed a public priority. “These [streams] are gifts to us,” Talley says. “They are treasures for our county and citizens, and we need to protect them.”

But as Jurczyk points out, county leaders and elected officials are more inclined to take action when they hear from the people they represent. She hopes, therefore, that Henrico residents will urge officials to lead a partnership effort with Virginia, homeowners, businesses, houses of worship, schools, and nonprofits “to fully engage everyone” on such important projects as reducing stormwater runoff and, ideally, implementing a stormwater utility fee.

“It’s do-able, affordable, and safe politically,” Jurczyk says. “Polls consistently find big majorities of Virginians want clean water, clean streams, clean rivers and are willing to pay for them.

“Everyone can win, everyone can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

Although this story marks the end of The Henrico Citizen’s six-part series, Citizen editors believe that issues surrounding the health of the Upham Brook Watershed merit continued awareness and coverage. In an effort to highlight these issues and raise reader and resident awareness, the Citizen will continue to share regular updates in a column devoted to the UBW and other area streams. Reader contributions are welcome. Look for Upham Currents in future issues, and please submit news, information, suggestions, and photos to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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